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5 Solutions to Help Students Overcome Basic Rhythm Challenges

By Stephen Benham | February 20, 2019

5 Solutions to Help Students Overcome Basic Rhythm Challenges

Have you ever thought about what it means to comprehend what is written on a page of music in the eyes of a five-year-old? Consider that the first pages of many method books contain the following information:

  • Bar Lines
  • Staff Lines
  • Notation (pitch)
  • Notation (rhythm)
  • Notation (dots and stems)
  • Clef
  • Time signature
  • Key signatures
  • Sharps, flats, and naturals
  • Finger numbers
  • Tempo markings (in foreign languages)
  • Dynamic markings
  • Articulation markings
  • Bowing markings
  • Slurs, ties, and phrase markings
  • Expressive markings (in foreign languages)
  • Lyrics

There is no doubt that reading music notation with comprehension is a complicated activity, with a difficulty level far exceeding that of simply reading written language. And yet, we would never place the same amount of written information in front of a child when they are learning to read their native language! We would break the tasks down into things like vocabulary words, sounds of letters and letter combinations, and basic grammar, all of which we do in order to develop understanding and comprehension. In other words, reading music isn’t simply a matter of knowing the names of the letters and basic rhythmic note values.

Four Underlying Problems with Rhythm

My first teaching experiences came when I was in high school, and began to teach private lessons to elementary string players in my school district. I continued to teach through college and then entered public school teaching. Teaching in both studio and large group settings presented different problems, but there were underlying issues that were the same in both contexts. In particular, I remember in my early years of teaching the amazement I had at students who could:

  1. Play perfectly in tune, but with no sense of rhythm or meter

  2. Use appropriate names of notes (e.g., quarter notes, half notes, eighth notes, etc.), explain the relationships of the notes to each other, but then not be able to play with a steady pulse when changing rhythms.

  3. Correctly write in the correct counting numbers underneath notated rhythms, but then not even come close to playing those same rhythm patterns with accuracy.

  4. Have amazing left-hand skills but demonstrate incredibly poor right-hand abilities, and vice versa.

Rhythm and the Brain: Six Essential Understandings

I know I’m not alone in this, as teachers around the country have shared with me that they encounter the same issues! In my research on rhythm and the brain, I’ve learned several things that will help music teachers improve their rhythmic skills. The following six understandings are essential in selecting activities that will help our students maximize their rhythmic abilities.

  1. Rhythmic perception is primarily physical perception.

    Implication for the music teacher: you cannot adequately develop rhythm skills without engaging the whole body.

  2. Rhythm, meter, and pitch are processed in three entirely different parts of the brain.

    Implication for the music teacher: we need to teach rhythm, meter, and pitch separately at the beginning, as if they were three separate skills.

  3. Rhythmic understanding and mathematical understanding of rhythmic patterns are two entirely different things, and use two entirely different types of intellectual processes. Students who have high aptitude in tonal understandings may have equally high or low rhythmic understanding. There is no connection between the two aptitudes.

    Implication for the music teacher: we need to develop the rhythmic part of the brain without relying on mathematics to decipher basic rhythm patterns. We should use both duple and triple rhythmic patterns early on in order to help students understand the differences between music that moves in groupings of twos and music that moves in groupings of three.

  4. Rhythmic understanding exists in the same parts of the brain as kinesthetic awareness (i.e., bodily awareness). These parts include the cerebellum, the putamen, and the primary somatosensory cortex. The cerebellum controls functions related to movement, coordination, balance, posture, and motor control. The part of the brain that controls rhythm is called the putamen, an internal structure that is related to regulating movement (including the preparation and execution of movement, and to influence learning. Finally, the actual transmission of rhythmic perception to finger and arm movement requires a connection to the primary somatosensory cortex to the other parts of the brain related to rhythm, all of which are not connected to the mathematic and tonal processing centers. There is no connection to the verbal processing part of the brain in the way that we might think, which means that the use of verbal phrases (such as pepperoni pizza, to represent four sixteenth notes and two eighth notes) is not efficient. Positive results from using phrases like that happen when teachers simply maintain a clear rhythm pattern when chanting those rhythms.

    Implication for the music teacher: develop rhythmic understanding through movement, chanting rhythms, tapping/clapping rhythms, and other physical activities before attempting to use numerical or other mnemonic systems.

  5. Right-hand and left-hand rhythm skills require both sides of the brain to be engaged at once. While rhythm, itself, resides in several parts of the brain, the actual physical performance of rhythm patterns is a much more complex task. Right-hand and left-hand skills exist in completely separated parts of the brain and the connection between the two parts of the brain requires specific training and the development of right-hand and left-hand coordinated movements.

    Implication for the music teacher: teach right-hand skills (which connect to the left hemisphere of the brain) and left-hand skills (connected to the right hemisphere) separately. Once students have mastered those individual skills should the right- and left-hands be combined.

  6. The appropriate reading and decoding of rhythm patterns happens when students associate a visual symbol with an internal understanding. In other words, when students see a rhythm pattern, their ability to perform it is based on how they internally feel the rhythm, not based on whether or not they can label a rhythm with the correct numbers.

    Implication for the music teacher: Use rhythm syllable systems that emphasize function and feel over labeling and mathematics. Examples of such systems include the Gordon rhythm syllables, the Takadimi system, and various adaptations of Orff systems.

Five Solutions

To put it simply, the best things you can do for your students are:

  1. To move more to music, especially music that has a steady pulse and clearly discernible rhythmic patterns.

  2. To play a single string or single note, emphasizing connecting the internally perceived rhythm to the right-arm movements. (Suzuki did this very well with his beginning "Twinkle" variation patterns, but teachers often overthink these and try to take short-cuts mentioned above, such as using mnemonic devices and mathematical systems).

  3. To develop left-hand rhythmic skills, especially the raising and lowering of fingers separately from right-hand rhythmic skills at the beginning.

  4. To listen and move to a wider range of music as students advance, including music that divides into both duple and triple feels. Students will learn best when they can easily discern the differences between those two basic divisions.

  5. To practice reading rhythm patterns that do not contain any other information (such as tonal material, key signatures, etc.) on a single line.

The two examples below, taken from Sound Innovations: Creative Warm-Ups, are helpful examples. The first shows three different systems for keeping track of beat and pulse: traditional counting, Gordon, and Takadimi. My preference for Gordon or Takadimi is listed above, though I do believe the use of numbers is helpful in later years when you are communicating with a larger group (e.g., "Would everyone please start on the third beat of measure 47?").

Rhythm Sample 1


The second example shows specific rhythm patterns and a sequence for developing rhythm skills that reflects the brain processes shown above:


Rhythm Sample 2


Don’t be discouraged if your students don’t develop rhythmic skills immediately. It takes time! The key is to be patient and make sure that you really focus on teaching but one thing at a time.

Stephen Benham

Dr. Stephen Benham is Professor of Music Education and Chair of Performance at Duquesne University. He is an active guest conductor and clinician focused on string teaching, pedagogy, and new string program development. He is a former president of the American String Teachers Association.

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